Difficult news: Curious Fictions will be closing its doors August 27. More details »
From the author: Amy discovers where Carl might fit into her life. Or is it her fitting into his?
Carl entered the diner, took a menu from the hostess and turned three pages. As if knowing what he would order by where it was in the menu, he ran his finger down the list and stopped halfway. The hostess seemed to have seen this before—she stood with a pen ready, a smile on her face. She winked at Amy as if she were in on a joke.
"Mediterranean salad with olives." Carl closed the menu and walked into the seating area. He sat at the nearest open table.
Amy told the hostess she'd have the same and sat with Carl.
They were silent until the food arrived, and then the only sounds were the crunching of lettuce. Halfway through his salad, Carl's olives lined the plate's rim. Amy watched him as he poked through the salad and extracted another large black olive.
"Don't you like them?"
"Why did you order them?"
"It was next."
Amy nodded. "You know, you don't have to order something if you don't like it. You can stick to the things you like."
Carl nodded. She could tell he was inserting this suggestion into some list of commands, something to regulate his behavior. She decided to be careful about making suggestions.
After lunch he said he was returning to his apartment.
She was relieved to find he had no furniture other than a bed, just like her. She had given up explaining to friends that she had no need for more, no desire to build a nest or collect furniture to hold things she didn't need. She felt at home in her sparce apartment. She knew why he had nothing, even if she didn't know why she didn't.
After she had explored his home alone. He had no interest in showing her around. She returned to the dining room and found him painting.
This one was like the last, only the child in it was a dark haired girl. She knelt in the desolate landscape. She held a paintbrush. On the rocks around her were faces and flowers. A list of indecipherable numbers written across a flat table of bedrock. The girl looked back at Amy, brush poised, ready to smear against the cold stone. Amy wondered what she would write, what she saw, and how it would be important. Another gap filled Amy's chest, spread to her belly. She felt something opening there.
She watched Carl paint for more than an hour. There was a church-like quality to the air and neither of them spoke. She leaned against the wall and watched. He held his brush like a bloody scalpel, as if he were saving the canvas from something killing it internally, as if he was only aware of the life existing on the other side of what his fingers could feel. He was oblivious, she thought. She stepped up to him, stood beside him, leaned over his shoulder to better see how he layered his paint, but also to see if he would react. He didn't. He focused on the painting, used techniques she knew he had only read about. He misused some of them, occasionally he was daring, but always his goal outstripped his poor technique. His failures succeeded, his errors added to the piece.
The silent gap echoed inside her. Amy swallowed air and stepped away. She had watched so much detail work that only as sounds of evening ferries and insects outside emerged did she realize what she was looking at. The barren landscape was filled with the little girl's painted strokes, and the little girl herself was sticky with paint, her hands and forearms a muted yellow and pink from the two brushes she held in either hand. The girl had none of the softness of childhood. Instead she was like a crater. She stared from the painting as if unaware of her own work, of the brushes she held, as if the childish qualities around her would have come as a surprise. Amy stared at the curve of her chin, the color of her eyes, and in an instant recognized that this was meant to be her. She was looking at a portrait of her.
Amy took hold of Carl's hand, tacky with paint, and pulled him to the bedroom. Once there she was unsure of what to do, of why she had brought him there. She knew she felt something for him, but it wasn't love, wasn't lust. The emptiness returned. She stood and imagined herself undressing, and lying on the bed with him. He stood in the doorway, watching her. She sat on the edge of the bed, held a pillow on her lap, suddenly cold but wanting him to say something, do something.
After several breaths refused to enter her chest she said, "Sit down."
He did, as she knew he would. She touched his hands, his arms. He was so pale, her own skin so dark compared to him that they seemed to be negative images of one another. His too pale eyes stared at the far wall. She sat on the bed's edge, and wrapped her arms across her chest. There was no shame in having brought him here, no shame in her hands on his skin as he sat unresponsive and mute. No shame because shame comes from knowing you'll be judged, and despite Carl sitting beside her there was no one in the room but Amy. She was alone. She touched his hand again, looked for him to see her and when he didn't she smiled for a reason she couldn't understand.
"You can go back to the living room if you like."
Without a word, he did.
She watched the face of the girl in the painting, the young artist lost in the dead canyon. She realized that it was not a picture of her as a child; it was her now. There may not be the moon terrain around her, but she felt it, it pressed upon her from all around, just at the corners of her eyes, she just barely perceived it was there. She was mesmerized. The high-pitched beep from Carl's phone brought her back. He turned off the alarm, walked past her. The front door squeaked as he opened it. That was the only sound he made as he left. She turned back to the painting and wondered when he might return and whether he would see her if she was there.
… … …
The painting in the window sold. Lucinda asked for another and that sold as well. She called her friend, Wendy, who ran a gallery downtown. She preferred traditional techniques with a modern subject. Lucinda couldn't think of a better way of describing Carl's work.
Wendy asked, "What is the subject matter?"
Lucinda stood behind the front counter. The store was empty. "Lunar child portraits."
The telephone crackled. "I'll be right there."
Wendy arrived with a black raincoat and white umbrella. It wasn't raining and the forecast called for sunshine and heat. Wendy was a collector of possibilities, even those no one else might see. Lucinda introduced Amy to Wendy. She led the two of them to Carl's apartment. Amy walked slightly ahead, as if alone.
"How do you know him?" Wendy asked. "The artist I mean," as if she could have been asking about anyone.
Amy replied without turning. "We became friends at the store. He's a regular customer."
Lucinda smiled at the word 'customer.' "He and Amy are quite close."
They reached the building and Amy rang the bell. They waited several minutes, long enough to prompt Lucinda to ask if Carl might be out. Amy shook her head.
"No, he'll be here. Probably cleaning brushes." Another moment passed and finally the reply buzz rang down. The women followed one another to the elevator. At Carl's door Amy didn't knock. She pushed at the door and it opened without even the latch trying to stop her. Inside, Carl stood in grey pants and white shirt. Across the hardwood floor layers of paint, splattered red, green, blue and greys. Footprints smeared through them, colored prints down the hallways, into the kitchen, toward the bedroom. They all went in one direction, away from the living room. Black and brown spots littered the floor around him like uncertain punctuation. Amy was getting accustomed to the gaps. The others were new to it. If the women could have stopped and listened or looked through one another they could have discovered that each was holding her breath.
Carl looked at them. He craned his neck toward Lucinda's friend. He waved one hand. It was red and crackled paint.
Lucinda and Wendy stood near the door. Amy crossed the room, across the paint. Beneath the paint was the highly polished floor, and below the floor the reflection of all of them, hanging silently below and upside down and warped the slightest bit with invisible imperfections of the wood.
Amy hugged Carl briefly, leaned her face next to his and held his shoulders with her hands.
She whispered into his ear. "Lucinda and Wendy would like to see your work."
"I don't work anymore."
"Your paintings." She smiled at them.
"Oh, yes. Those."
Carl walked into the hallway toward the bedroom. Amy waved for Lucinda and Wendy to follow. The large bedroom was cluttered with stacks of canvases. There were dozens. Some small as a hand with fingers outstretched. Others as tall as Carl and nearly as wide. Each revealed some scene of rocky terrain, the cold vacuum ripping at the canvas, and at the center a child, pale, white-eyed, alone and busy, occupied by some type of work. In one a child mopped. In another he carried a ladder and spray-cleaning bottle with cloth. Pulling trash bins. Stacking boxes. Digging holes into already deep craters. All wore coveralls, gray or orange. Utilitarian. Lucinda saw them and her throat tightened. She looked up and found Amy smiling at her. They looked at every painting, over three dozen along three walls. The fourth wall held the bed. It took a very long time. Carl's alarm clock on his phone rang and he shut it off and left them alone, left without a word, left for food or a walk or something else scheduled for today and tomorrow and forever. Some time later Wendy looked up at Lucinda, eyes afire.
"You are right." She didn’t say how Lucinda was right. She didn’t have to. She looked at Amy, searched the room. "Has Carl stepped out?"
"He'll be back." She smiled. It was fine he left without explanation. It was fine.
They heard his front door open and close. Movement in the living room. The click of brushes spoke of his return to work. Amy leaned out the bedroom door.
"He's back, and he's working on a new one."
The women stepped into the living room. Carl stood before his easel, brush in hand. They watched the brush drag against the canvas. Lucinda and Wendy stood next to one another, watching him. Amy snuck quietly back down the hall to the bedroom to look again at a painting of the so pale young boy mopping across the lunar surface.
On Carl's brush was a red-orange blend. He applied thick strokes to the canvas. Eventually the reddish smear at the center would become the rising glow of an explosion escaping through the valley between two ragged mountains. Eventually as Wendy and Lucinda watched the explosion in the background would cast long shadows from a child with vacant expression and too white eyes. That would come later. For now the canvas held nothing but the beginning of devastation's impression on an empty slate.
… … … …
Amy left the apartment. As the elevator lowered her to sea-level she thought of everything she had said about Carl and his work, her clear admiration, and the whiff of jealousy at any other connection he might make with anyone else.
"I'm the only person other than himself that he's ever painted." She'd said this with a smile cresting. "The only one." She had to repeat it as she knew it might not be true, couldn't let herself remember that the first painting had been of the rescued little girl. Sometimes we echo what we want and need. Prayers are for us more than for God.
Amy left the building. The ferry dock wasn't far, and it was a nice night. She began to walk. This is the way Carl must come, she thought. His diner was this way. The ferry. What must he think of it all, this alien world that made him? Ahead of her something floating in the water knocked against a pylon.
Near the ferry dock a work crew was busy with a burnt out pole light. The knocking from the water grew louder, less rhythmic, stopped. A voice calling from below drew two of the coveralled workers to the walkway edge where they leaned to peer into the water at something she couldn't see, someone below them. Low conversation. A hand rose above the horizon of planks and Amy became genuinely curious about the work. One topside worker reached down and grabbed what was handed from below: a pole, rubber handled, grappling claws at the far end dangling a thick cable, raw wires flowering at the end. The sound of wrinkled plastic sheets, electrical popping as the wires were live. The workers did everything necessary to keep their grip on the rubber handles—their work gloves not enough—and the pole angled safely away.
The worker tasked with holding the cable pulled it safely away; the other knelt down and worked at pulling the submerged partner from the water. His work clothes reminded Amy of a 19th century wetsuit, a heavy rubber covering from neck down, thick fiberglass hood, glass window on the front the size of a dinner plate. Despite the thickness of the suit and the awkward fit the worker climbed topside with surprising ease. Suited in his protective gear he quietly reclaimed the equipment and dangerous cable from his cohort. Amy was awed at the danger of the work and their ease in doing it. The cable was secured just as the ferry came into view, blared its horn to signal the workers of its approach and two of the workers waved in response. Yes, yes, they saw, they understood. They would stay clear.
The fourth of the crew, all that time atop a ladder working with lamppost wiring, finished his removal of some faulty unit and climbed down to begin work on the cable. He and the wetsuited worker knelt beside it, rubberized tools in hand, the electrical pops louder than their so-quiet comments.
Amy watched this, silent herself, caught by the similarity between the workers' coveralls and the clothing in one of Carl's paintings. She was just about to let herself wonder if he might have seen these or other workers nearby, wonder if he might not be more aware of his surroundings than any of them gave credit, when the wetsuited worker stood and turned and removed his helmet, drew her attention to his nearly all-white eyes, and in his gaze the same quiet poise as Carl, so close in resemblance he might be a cousin or even a brother.
She had stood at that moment, in preparation for climbing aboard the ferry, but now she stopped. Stopped and stared. And when another worker asked the first to hurry and help, she saw then that he too, the one who'd been on the ladder, gazed from white in white eyes.
And the ferry stopped, and the pilot gave a quick blast on the horn and a workman waved again. The passengers climbed aboard, Amy last. She pulled her gaze from the workers, inside her head a slideshow of Carl's paintings, a variety of outfits, children, lost in barren vacuum, doing every conceivable task that no child should want or need or do, and she closed her eyes a moment, not wanting to chance a glance through the pilot house window lest she catch sight of the boat pilot's eyes and see the blank pale of an uncolored gaze.